Book Review: Jonathan Edwards & The Church, by Rhys Bezzant
Bezzant, Rhys S. Jonathan Edwards and the Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 314 pp. $49.95.
The number of books written on Jonathan Edwards is endless. From his thoughts on revival and conversion, to his thoughts on metaphysics and philosophy, no stone has been left unturned—that is, except for one. Surprisingly, no book has been written on Edwards’s theology of the church until now. Rhys S. Bezzant, church historian and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center Australia, has done the church a great service by tackling this elusive subject.
In many ways, Edwards was caught between two worlds. One was the God-centered world of his Reformed Puritan heritage; the other was the emerging individualistic world of the Enlightenment. While many pastors dug their heels in and pushed back against the tide, others happily embraced Enlightenment sentiments. Edwards was the rare breed who attempted to walk the tightrope between the two, reframing his inherited Reformed Puritan tradition in Enlightenment terms.
One consequence of Edwards’s innovative techniques is that he is often misunderstood and misrepresented. This is clearly seen in his ecclesiology. One camp argues Edwards’s ecclesiology was simply the inherited New England Way, with very little innovation, while the other argues Edwards was so influenced by his Enlightenment, individualistic context that he paid very little attention to the corporate body and overemphasized individual conversion.
Bezzant argues for a third way to understand Edwards, and this third way is why this book will prove helpful for the contemporary pastor. Bezzant contends that “by preserving its strengths and adapting its expression, Edwards refreshes an ossified New England ecclesiology” (xi). In other words, Edwards successfully adapted his Puritan ecclesiological tradition to his Enlightenment context.
Bezzant presents his third way by tracing Edwards’s ecclesiological thought chronologically, using his published and unpublished writings to show that Edwards’s ecclesiology was “a compass by which he was enabled to navigate the currents and reefs of the revivals’ waters” (3). In chapter one Bezzant traces the Puritan ecclesiology that Edwards inherited and shows that Edwards had “to navigate between competing Puritan parties, diverse approaches to ministerial authority, and questions concerning the ultimate social role of the gathered Christian community” (12).
In chapter two Bezzant deals with Edwards’s ecclesiological thought between 1703 and 1734, addressing his upbringing and unconventional conversion experience (unconventional in the sense that he did not experience conversion according to the traditional preparationist model). This chapter concludes by looking at how Edwards’s Trinitarian theology shaped his ecclesiology.
Chapter three looks at the period between 1735 and 1746. Some of Edwards’s most well-known writings came from this period, as he tried to understand and articulate what exactly took place in the revivals of 1734-1735. Works such as A Faithful Narrative, The Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Charity and Its Fruits, his collection of sermons titled “A History of the Work of Redemption,” and Some Thoughts Concerning Revival are addressed by Bezzant.
In chapter four (1747-1758), Bezzant, using An Humble Attempt, The Life of Brainerd, An Humble Inquiry, “A Farewell Sermon,” and Edwards’ Stockbridge treatises, contends that Edwards’ ecclesiology was not on the periphery, but instead, was central. From Edwards’s “ecclesiologically motivated” corporate prayer to his global focus, Bezzant shows again and again that the church was always at the forefront of Edwards’ mind (151).
In chapter five Bezzant summarizes the themes of the book and shows how Edwards’s ecclesiology played out on a weekly basis. And in the final chapter Bezzant argues that Edwards’s understanding of the church is a perfect model of evangelical ecclesiology; one which “harnesses creative innovative missiological forms to . . . Biblical truth” (260).
EDWARDS’ ECCLESIOLOGY FOR TODAY
Bezzant points out that Edwards often used a tree as an image of the church—“rooted deeply in one place and yet responsive to its environment” (xi). I think this is a helpful image for the contemporary evangelical church as well. As in Edwards’ day, too many contemporary evangelical churches go from one extreme to the other. On the one hand, we have evangelical churches with deep, deep roots, but rigid, inflexible branches. These churches are doctrinally sound, but lack “philosophical and ministerial nuance” (xii). They are simply unwilling to adapt their ministry to their contemporary context. On the other hand, we have evangelical churches with dangerously shallow roots, but extremely flexible branches. These churches lack doctrinal convictions and often fall prey to the latest pragmatic ministry fad of the day.
Edwards’ approach, as illustrated in Bezzant’s book, tries to strike the right balance between the two extremes. The contemporary evangelical church must have deep doctrinal roots that nourish ministry philosophy and practice, and ministry practice must never be disconnected from the church’s theology and doctrine. However, these ministerial branches must be able to adapt to changing environments.
Edwards’s early adoption of contemporary hymn composition is a perfect example of this balanced, nuanced approach. Hymn writing was a controversial ministry practice in Edwards’ day, because most Congregational churches practiced singing exclusively from the Old Testament Psalms. Many believed introducing contemporary hymns in the service corrupted the service and was an aberration from Scriptural precedent (222). Edwards disagreed saying “there are songs in the book of Revelation that are not psalms, and yet when offered with a true heart and directed toward worship of the Lamb, make profound spiritual melody” (222). Edwards’ God-centered roots were not compromised in his decision, but instead informed his decision. This is just one of many examples found in Bezzant’s work on Edwards and his nuanced approach to ecclesiology.
Some readers may be frustrated with my lack of specificity, but that, I suppose, is part of the point. Ministry practice in a small country church in the South will look much different than ministry practice in an urban environment in the Northeast, even though the doctrinal roots should be the same.
ONE MAJOR WEAKNESS
Jonathan Edwards’ ecclesiology had deep Trinitarian and Christological roots, and yet, he was more than willing to adapt his ecclesiology to a particular context. In this important work, Bezzant has brought an authoritative voice in evangelical circles into our contemporary discussions on the doctrine of the church, and for that he is to be applauded.